Stranger in a Strange Land, Part 3

It was getting late, and the place slowly emptied out. By 1:45 there was me, Ret, Boss, a couple keeping up an animated conversation around some obscure point about manga that I couldn’t begin to follow, and Santa and Krampus. Ret could have gone home by then, but she found things to do — looking for an excuse, obviously.

They had both put away a lot of alcohol. Santa stuck with the
Bons Vœux, and Krampus had moved to cold Pitsalati shots. I like Pitsalati; it is not a beginner’s ouzo. Krampus was taking those shots pretty fast; I hoped I wouldn’t run out tonight.

There were a few people who nodded toward them as they left; I suspect more people could see who it really was. Santa would nod back, smile, and wink, and then go back to talking with Krampus. I love my crowd; they know what it is like when people just want to drink and talk without a crowd forming around them.

Boss had been moving around the place all evening, but staying as far from Krampus as She could at the same time. I think She wanted to give the basket a goooood sniff, but She didn’t want to get that close. She didn’t get all puffed up, like She does when She’s really angry or afraid. But She clearly wasn’t happy.

Finally Santa stood, cut loose with a belch that rattled the windows, and proclaimed, “It’s about time I get home to the missus. She’s already likely wondering where I am. K, can I offer you a lift?”

Krampus took another shot, wiped his mouth, and gave off a cloud of coal dust when he stood up. “Yes, my friend,” that incredible, scary, basso profundo voice said, “I would appreciate that.” I thought he might be drunk, but he plucked his basket off the floor, slung it over his head with a deftness that surprised me, and neatly had it on his back.

“You folks have a good night,” I called. With that, Santa turned back.

“Oh, I almost forgot your gift this year, Mikhel. Almost forgot.” Santa walked up to me, leaned over the bar, and whispered into my ear. He pulled back and patted me on the cheek. “With my very best wishes.”

I was thunderstruck.

Then the two of them walked out the door, Santa taking his red jacket off the coat rack as he passed it. The three of us watched as Santa and Krampus climbed into the sleigh, and to my disappointment it started to glide down the street. I didn’t see it fly into the air.

Ret went outside to watch it silently glide into the night and then came back inside. I was still standing there, gobsmacked. Ret looked at me. “What did he say?”

It took me a moment to gather my wits. “He . . . Santa said . . . that . . .”

I stopped. Ret waited, and then, “What? What did he say?”

I felt tears start up in my eyes. “He told me that I would be able to run this place as long as I want. He will take care of any problems I have.”

I quickly drew myself the last shot of Pitsalati, and hoisted it to the sky in salute. “Merry fucking Christmas, Santa Claus, you old bastard!” I downed it, spun, and threw the shotglass into the corner of the bar hard. There was a far-off tinkle of glass, as if it had shattered on brick, but when Ret went to sweep it up, the shards were nowhere to be found.

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